White privilege and the liberal white blogger.

The other day, for the first time in my life, I found myself accused of being blind to my white privilege.

My accuser was a complete stranger, but I was broadcasting my opinions to a vast crowd of complete strangers, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised when complete strangers respond. (Oh Twitter, what have you wrought? But I digress. Already).

I think it’s beyond refute that my skin color has served to privilege me my entire life — but of course it’s in the nature of “[fill in the blank] privilege” that the owner of the privilege is often blind to it, so I wouldn’t want to say that my accuser was wrong. It’s entirely possible that my accuser (who I at first thought was a man, then later realized was probably a woman, but I’m not sure) was right and what I’d said/tweeted was evidence of my blindness.

I will also say that I like to believe (am, in fact, somewhat invested in believing) that the reason I haven’t had “white privilege” yelled at me before now is because I am an aware and considerate human being — but it’s entirely possible that the real reason is because I lived in a different country for 14 years.

So. I can’t say anything for a fact, other than that if I said something that smacked of privilege, it was out of blindness, not out of intent.

But that’s exactly that point of confusion that I’m here to explore.

Here’s the background: A little more than a week ago, I learned from Ta-Nehisi Coates of a new movement in the African-American community dubbed “No Wedding, No Womb,” an effort to stem out-of-wedlock births among blacks, with the understanding that children are better served by two-parent families.

Ta-Nehisi’s approach was, off the bat, one of skepticism:

There’s been a lot of talk about “No Wedding, No Womb”…. Basically the idea is to encourage black women (because there isn’t enough of this) to not have kids until they’re married. I’m tempted to call this sort of thing another iteration of organic black conservatism, but to the extent that conservatism has increasingly lost coherent meaning, it’s more like a kind of black moral populism.

It’s the black woman’s version of the kind exhortations Bill Cosby, Barack Obama, and countless black public figures before them, engaged in. And that’s fine–it’s a tradition. But we should be clear about a couple things:
1.) It should be noted that this online movement emerges at a moment when media is utterly obsessed with alleged unhappiness of single black women.
2.) It should also be noted that the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for roughly forty years. The oft-floated notion that black couples, today, have somehow fallen from the moral precipice is bunk….

My comment (within a community of people who know me, in that weird internet way, and in a forum where the lack of space limitations allows one to speak with nuance) was also skeptical:

I can’t exactly speak to any personal experience of the media’s obsession with the unhappiness of single black women, but I can certainly speak to the idea that women of all colors are more than their wombs, more than their left ring fingers, and more than this entire question gives them credit for.

…I think it’s entirely possible to be… be-ringed or not, and be both content and a valuable contributor to society.

People responded to this comment positively, and Ta-Nehisi replied, saying:

And I think it’s entirely possible to be… be-ringed or not, and be both content and a valuable contributor to society.

Agreed. And I missed something you hint at–that “no womb” is necessarily reductive.

And in the meantime, as is my wont, I got het up — I may not be black, but I am a woman, and lord am I tired of women being treated as walking wombs who need to drag unwilling men to the justice of the peace. Moreover, shouldn’t we maybe start by insisting that our men understand that they are also responsible for the outcome of their orgasms?

So I started to opine (as is also my wont), and as Twitter is the closest thing I have to a water cooler, that’s where I did my opining. “Repeat after me,” read one tweet, “women are more than their wombs. Women are more than their wombs. Women are more than their wombs. #nwnw” (“#nwnw” standing for “No Wedding, No Womb” in Twitter parlance).

I sent such missives out into the world a few times, a few got re-tweeted, I moved on. Then a couple of days later the subject crossed my Twitter path again. I re-tweeted the words of someone else (@MonicaBPotts: “if #nwnw were concerned about fatherlessness, it would be directed at fathers.”) and then threw in something along the lines of “How about #ncnv – No Condom, No Vagina? That would solve a bunch of problems. #nwnw” — and almost immediately found myself on the receiving end of a series of tweets from the aforementioned accuser, telling me that I, a white woman, have no right to use my white privilege to try to tell the black community how they should and should not solve their problems.

I can’t tell you exactly what either of us said, because I deleted my own tweet fairly quickly — adding: “Forget it. I have some strong opinions about something that’s not in my playground. Such opinions are not for Twitter, not tonight. *Delete*” — and in the meantime, my accuser has deleted the tweets directed at me. So you’ll just have to trust me.

But finally, after that whole story, we get to the point that I’m chasing around in my brain. To me it seems entirely reasonable that I would have an opinion about this — I’m a woman, and I think this movement is less about race than it is about the ways in which society continues to try to tell women who we are and what we’re supposed to do with our bodies. Moreover, I’m an American, and if out-of-wedlock births are a problem for anyone in this country (“if,” because I think that two people can be wonderful parents without a marriage license, and I further think that in many cases, the question of marriage isn’t at all the right question), if they are a problem for anyone, I believe that they are a problem for all of us, absolutely regardless of the race or ethnicity of the pregnant woman in question. I still think the real answer is much closer to #ncnv.

But it strikes me that, all that aside, that has to be put to the side when I walk into a conversation being held among African-Americans. That when I’m in a room where they know me (TNC’s place), I can take part, as long as I acknowledge that I’m coming in through a side door — but if I wander into a room where they don’t know me, and start making free with my opining, that might very well be a sign of white-privilege-blindness, or at the very least white-liberal-lack-of-consideration, because I apparently figure I have a right to be in the room with all these strangers in the first place. I wouldn’t want a man I don’t know heedlessly barging into a conversation about women’s body issues all unannounced — even if, in a democracy, he would of course have every “right” to do just that.

Those who have a history of oppression now hold the rights to declaring the limit of the conversational circle, I think. It’s my job, when I’m in the position of standing with the people who have the history of doing the oppressing, to be respectful of that right. It’s a moving target, I’ll grant you, but I think it’s my job to be conscious of the fact that it’s there.

I think. I would love to hear what you think.


  1. I think–from my oh-so-knowledgeable position as a young white gay man–there’s a certain defensiveness that comes up with issues within a minority community. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy is a problem transcending race, but the NWNW campaign is targeted towards black women and, as TNC pointed out, is not the first such attempt. Putting aside the falling rates, if for the sake of argument, to the extent that it is a problem it “belongs” to the black community. I suppose a similar analogue would be promiscuity and unsafe sex among gay men. I don’t know if you had been in regular contact with this tweeter, but I can understand a black person (who doesn’t know you) getting defensive about a white woman (am I wrong in feeling odd describing Jews as ‘white?’) chiming in on a conversation that’s been going on for some time now, especially given history and the abundance of White Savior/White Man’s Burden narratives. No one likes strangers giving unsolicited advice, even if it is well-intentioned.

    My take: it was mostly a misunderstanding.

  2. This is the barrier we are going to continually run up against where race, creed, and gender are still the focus of so much time and effort on the part of those who choose to differentiate themselves and others by those differences. Those of us who have done our utmost to decouple ourselves from such things, must still face the fact that not everyone has. People will still see us as white, or male, or Jewish, or straight; as much as we want them to see us as nothing more than as individual human beings, we cannot force their perception of us along the same track as our own. They must come to accept us as we are in their own time and place, and all we can do is educate them as to our stance, a stance that says their value as a human being far outstrips any of the artificial dividing lines that groups cling to. We can only continue to teach by example.

  3. dmf

     /  October 5, 2010

    tweeting and such may be ok for pointing people to more in-depth discussions/materials but not very good for actual conversations,
    so i would worry more about the limits of the media/um and less about the limits of your self-awareness.

  4. Bob

     /  October 5, 2010

    Well, NWNW is certinly classier–and more likely to succeed–than “No chuppa, no shtuppa” that most of the Jewish girls I knew in Jr High/HS took as their mantra–at least til they hit college…

  5. silentbeep

     /  October 5, 2010

    “My take: it was mostly a misunderstanding.”

    Yeah, I mostly agree with this. Well, this is just from my pov (i’m not white, no matter what TNC says, and I’m not black).

    That bit about whiteness and TNC is just a reference to how everytime he talks about Latinos, he starts conflating us with all whiteness, and ya know, it’s so much more complicated than that. O.K. I’ll stop! I’m bringing my issues into this!


    Yeah, just a misunderstanding it seems to me.

  6. Rosiland

     /  October 5, 2010

    Wow. Some people are always looking for an excuse to go postal on other people. I think the person who thought you were speaking out of class ought to take a deep breath. She missed the whole point — which is that a woman’s right to choose is being conflated with other issues, such as the need for committed fathers, the need for everyone to engage in safe sex practices, and the historic perversion of black women’s sexuality as one of the justifications for their continued enslavement.

    As I said over at TNC’s place, I’m not having sex to make a political statement. I’ve having sex because I like the guy. And all those people who don’t like my choices can just go suck it. (Thanks, Tina Fey!)

  7. I agree with BenjaminTheAss. I would put it down to a defensiveness of the person in the community who probably has been dealing with the issue since day one and who does not know you, ee. As you said, at TNC’s place, you’ve earned your place in the community by demonstrating your compassionate response and open mind time and time again. On Twitter or any blog, really, someone who doesn’t know you can easily put the worst possibly interpretation on what you said.

    I will say that as you acknowledged, when someone of privilege steps into a conversation in a community of not so much privilege, one would do well to tread lightly. However, in this situation, it was mostly the case of someone taking what you said in the worst faith possible.

    silentbeep, I hear you. I liked when TNC had Oliver Wang writing posts because then I could actually talk about Asian issues without feeling like I was intruding!

  8. And, just to add on the original subject (though I should not because I am not be-ringed and I am gleefully child-free), while I think that ideally, a child would have a stable situation with two loving parents (who love each other and the child), this is rarely the case. So, hold it up as an ideal, maybe (though I would argue that having positive role models in a child’s life who are not parents is better than having shitty parents), but not as the be-all, end-all. And, I find it telling that the slogan is no wedding, no womb, rather than no marriage, no womb. All that focus on one day when it’s the happily-after-ever that matters.

  9. I love that there are other people out there who fret about interactions with Anonymous Internet Peoples as much as I do. This summer, I had the most bizarre exchange in the Slate comment section for an article about TDS’s hiring of Olivia Munn. A woman barged in to the comments announced she was a Black Woman (capital B capital W), and proceeded to call everyone on the thread racist or misogynist as she saw fit. When I made comments that disagreed with hers, she accused me of sucking up to the white people on the thread. Then, when I turned the “conversation” into a blog post, she essentially accused me of cyber-raping her, then said I was obsessed with destroying black women, then said I was a sexual deviant. It was the weirdest fucking exchange I’ve ever experienced on the Internet. Then Slate when through and selectively moderated the comments so as to make me look out of line. Luckily I had subscribed to the comments (which I never do for the bigger blogs… actually I rarely comment on the bigger blogs, I just lurk) so I had a record of everything.

    Sounds like a misunderstanding, and I’m going to second what BenjaminTheAss said. A friend of mine occasionally blogs for me under the moniker “Even-Tempered White Lady.” I think you would enjoy reading her post: http://www.angryblacklady.com/2010/05/03/on-being-an-even-tempered-white-lady/. In terms of privilege, I have far more of it than she does. My parents are more well-off etc.Yet, at the end of the day, she’s a white girl, and I’m a black girl, so she automatically is viewed as privileged while I rarely am viewed that way. Until people hear my background and then suddenly I’m an Uncle Tom. 😉

    Anyway, I’m bookmarking your site and I sure wish I’d delurked at BJ sooner!

  10. So, I’m Even Tempered White Lady (also known as TheHobo) and while I still mostly think I agree with myself, now being embedded in a masters social work program, I maybe have to reconsider my stance on race and privilege. I’m not sure I’m maybe not still more privileged than ABL, because as my one professor said, “sometimes it’s not about socio-economics, it’s about race.” Although socio-economic status (or SES as I just learned social workers call it) is more and more becoming a greater indicator of risk factors and future success, nonwhite people at the same education and experience level as their white peers still make less money (and women still make less than their male peers at the same education and experience level) and while we think the conversation has moved away from race and gender and on to other forms of priviledge, we’re actually not really any further than we used to be. And in fact, the backlash currently happening because we’re supposedly “post racism” with a black president may even be taking us back quite a few steps.

    That being said, we also had a really interesting question about how Jewish people became white (as well as Irish and other immigrant groups in America) since they didn’t start out that way. And some may argue that Jewish people are still not “white” as we understand it in America because they are not, to put it bluntly, Sarah Palin. And neither are Latinos, so no, they’re not white either (but mostly because they are still nonwhite, however closer in skin tone to white they may be. See also Asians).

    But also, being a white girl in a social work setting, talking to nonwhite fellow students about issues of race is a very uncomfortable place to be, in general, because of this idea that this isn’t my playground. But our professors challenged us to reconsider that notion because as they say, if we can’t figure out how to have these conversations in a social work graduate program setting (or in a progressive blog setting) how can we have them anywhere else?

    “Those who have a history of oppression now hold the rights to declaring the limit of the conversational circle, I think.”

    And I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that declaration–I sort of feel like when you exclude people from the conversational circle, you perpetuate the cycle of general exclusion. I think the biggest mistake we make, and have been making (keeping in mind this is a burgeoning and untested theory at this point) is telling people a) to be color blind and thus ignoring the different experienced different races endure and b) excluding the people with privilege from the conversation because of their privilege. That’s like saying racism is a nonwhite issue, when I think very much is it is a white issue, just like sexism is a male issue, and homophobia is a heterosexual issue. As the people with the privilege we have to engage in these conversations, learn to have them, stop being afraid to have them, and then go and have them with our fellow privileged so that maybe we can start making real headway toward ending some of the discrepancies associated with the isms.

    I know that comes dangerously close to the historically oppressed becoming responsible in educating the privileged folk, something I’m also against in that it puts the responsibility of dealing with the isms onto the people being prejudiced against, and I’d much rather the privileged folk educated their fellow privileged, but the conversations and education has to start somewhere.

    Because that conversation Ta-Nehisi started with “It should also be noted that the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for roughly forty years. The oft-floated notion that black couples, today, have somehow fallen from the moral precipice is bunk….” was started by the privileged who are the ones who have ALWAYS looked for the ways that black couples and black individuals have fallen from the moral precipice. NWNW may have been started in the African American community, but the ideas of it originated in the white community and has been internalized by, well, everyone. And it’s the dominant/white culture that also doesn’t report on the declining birth rate for unmarried black women, and who first introduced the idea of the Welfare Queen and the general negative view of unmarried black women.

    Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t also apologize for spilling my white privilege all over a nice nonwhite blog, but that…well…I’m not sure I want to make a habit of it. I’m not sure what to do instead, but I don’t think I want to become, or rather, continue to be afraid to talk about these sorts of things with people who don’t share my privilege. Maybe there are still rules of conduct to be considered, but rules of conduct still imply conduct takes place, interaction happens. And I think we really need to interact more, not less, and find out how to have these conversations. Because if those who are actively trying not to be racist can’t find a way to talk about race, those who are blissfully racist will never be properly challenged.

    Sorry for the really long rant. 😛 I’ve been mulling over these sorts of thoughts for a while…

    • Oh good, she *did* come over here and explain some of her school experiences. And I’m glad she shares my viewpoint that we have to keep talking about this stuff. Now rant for ABLC, ETWL. Just because you’re, like, getting a graduate degree and stuff doesn’t let you off the hook! 😉

    • dmf

       /  October 9, 2010

      does your social work education include any kind of how-to classes in areas like organizational ethics/management, political organizing, professional advocacy? As Jane Addams tried to teach us talking about such matters in the abstract, as opposed to working them through in seeking the resolution to particular (at hand) problems, is to get pulled into the ivory tower neverland of the merely academic.

      • This is social work dmf–you start off running with a field placement where you immediately start practicing your trade even as you’re learning it. There is nothing about this field that remains in the abstract, because of the nature of direct practice. Even those who will ultimately pursue careers in policy and administration are exposed to direct practice, advocacy, and other aspects of social work. But as this is the first semester of the first year, yes, some of these ideas are questions posed and not answered.

        Some of these questions don’t have answers, or at least not easy to find ones.

        But yes, our education does include organizational ethics (we spend a lot of time on all sorts of ethics), political organizing, professional advocacy–the whole bad of services under the great umbrella that is social work.

        And our direct practice does put us in situations where these conversations are no longer abstract, when as a white person of privilege (real and perceived), you are interacting with a nonwhite person from a lower socio-economic status who is looking at you like there is no way in hell you can understand them, let alone help them, and yet your job is to do both–these are not just conversations we have just to have them, but because we need to have them in order to do our jobs.

        And there are plenty of other professions that need to have these same sorts of conversations, and maybe don’t (I can’t speak to the training of professions outside journalism, which does touch on many of these issues, if less directly). But even outside the professional field, as individuals it’s important to have these conversations–conversations are how ideas are challenged and new ideas spread, and without the idea there can be no action. We fall into the same old same old, or allow those around us to. Words have power to change people. And if MLK and others taught us nothing else, they taught us the power of words, words that create a movement, and a movement that creates change.

        Don’t knock the talking because you think it’s too much hot air. Maybe you’re at the doing stage, but there are people who don’t even know there’s anything to be done, and talking is the first step to getting to them.

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